'Captain America: Civil War': Film Review

Delivers the fan-thrilling goods.
5/6/2016

Ethical questions divide the Avengers in Marvel’s latest big-screen extravaganza starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson.

Call it “civil war” or call it brand extension; call it a “cinematic universe” or a corporate behemoth — the latest Marvel extravaganza furthers the studio’s cross-pollination of action franchises in a way that’s sure to satisfy devotees. Posing serious questions about violence and vigilantism while reveling in both, Captain America: Civil War is overlong but surprisingly light on its feet. It builds upon the plotlines of previous Avengers outings, bringing together known marquee quantities and introducing the Black Panther and a new Spidey in winning fashion.

Like the previous Captain America feature, 2014’s The Winter Soldier, the film was scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, with Anthony and Joe Russo at the helm. Within genre requirements, they achieve an overall balance between super-kinetic — or numbing, depending on your point of view — action sequences and character detail, although more of the latter would have been welcome. And while the chance to see old-school Steve Rogers and modern guy Tony Stark, aka Captain America and Iron Man, go mano a mano is inherently thrilling only to diehard fans, even nonbelievers who make it to that climactic moment will feel that something is at stake when the two face off.

As the third Captain America film jump-starts the summer movie season, and something called Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its box-office muscle is beyond question.

After a brief prologue set in 1991, the film dives headlong into action overkill on the streets of Lagos, where the Avengers chase down a group of murderous mercenaries. But overkill turns out to be the heart of the matter, or at least a key plot engine. The heroes foil the criminals, but not before the energy-projecting Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) inadvertently sets a high-rise on fire, resulting in many civilian casualties.

The variously “enhanced individuals” who make up the Avengers have been operating as an independent group, no longer under the aegis of the spy agency SHIELD, and the nations of the world have taken notice of their collateral damage. The U.S. secretary of state (William Hurt) warns them that the U.N. is about to ratify the Sokovia Accords, named after a fictional country that figured in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and where things didn’t go so well for the citizenry. The agreement would put the group under the supervision of a U.N. panel, and the superheroics of anyone who doesn’t sign on will no longer be sanctioned.

Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), shaken by a confrontation with the mother of someone killed in Sokovia (a sharp cameo by Alfre Woodard), is ready to be “put in check.” But Rogers (Chris Evans), who is, after all, a frozen and revivified member of the Greatest Generation, still in his youthful prime, sees giving in to the demands as giving up. And so the lines are drawn, with charmer Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) the first to join Team Cap. Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the nonhuman, purple-visaged Vision (Paul Bettany) side with Iron Man, which soon puts them in the position of policing their former colleagues.

In many ways the movie’s red-blue divide (the color distinctions are based on Judianna Makovsky’s stellar superhero outfits) is far more nuanced than the split in U.S. electoral politics. But the screenplay’s angsting over the ethics of being a crime-stopper is also, finally, an excuse for more pummeling clashes. There’s the complicating matter of a ruthless villain, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), and the race to stop him. And, not least, there’s the necessity of world-colliding skirmishes between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, their superpowers on showstopping display in a spectacular sequence at the Leipzig airport that benefits from flashes of humor and self-awareness, as well as Trent Opaloch’s dynamic camerawork.

Reflecting the material’s comic-book roots, the Russos keep the film’s action heavy on physics- and biology-defying thwacks and slams, with almost no blood, although there is a crucial injury late in the proceedings. Amid the mayhem, the movie doesn’t necessarily feel overloaded with Avengers, but some personalities get to shine more than others. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye barely registers, while Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man has comedy and wow-factor f/x at his disposal to make more of an impression. But for all their kickass moves and fretting close-ups, such charismatic actors as Cheadle and Johansson feel sidelined through much of the story.

The movie’s center does hold, though, in the well-played contrast between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Rogers’ anachronistic aspects are no longer the source of punchlines, and Evans persuasively conveys his decency without overstating the matter. Through their contained performances, he and Sebastian Stan, as Bucky Barnes (aka the Winter Soldier), give emotional heft to their characters’ friendship, a crucial element of the story. Just as crucial, Evans leaves room for doubt about whether Rogers is right to resist outside rules, even as the film clearly sides with him.

Downey, whose ace timing and effortless snark make him the movie’s chief comic relief, also provides pivotal emotional chords. In a well-earned twist that revolves around Stark, past and present converge in wrenching ways. The revelation adds extra oomph to a striking early scene — reportedly one of the most CGI-labor-intensive pieces of the pic — in which billionaire Stark uses technology to revisit a traumatic moment. In addition to cameos by John Slattery and Hope Davis, the segment features a digitally de-aged Downey playing Stark’s younger self.

Matters of friendship, family and loyalty course through the action. They’re essential to the story of the newest Avenger, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). He's a prince named T’Challa from the fictional Wakanda, and his transformation is fueled by hunger for revenge after a devastating personal loss. Boseman inhabits the part with typical intensity, piquing fans’ anticipation of the Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther, on the Marvel calendar for 2018.

Yet another cross-brand introduction, however transparent, takes shape as a comic set piece in Civil War. The terrific sequence involves Stark’s recruitment of a certain New Yorker named Peter Parker, and Tom Holland’s agile performance bodes well for next year’s Spider-Man reboot. That scene is tipped by the appearance of the screen title “Queens” — itself a nice joke after the film’s succession of globe-hopping locales. From that Forest Hills apartment to Tony Stark’s modernist lair to the cold metallic grunge of a floating prison, Owen Paterson’s assured production design, enhanced by the effects team's polished work, gives vivid form to the Avengers’ world, whether they're saving it or leaving it in a bit of a mess.

Distributor: Disney
Production company: Marvel Studios
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Marisa Tomei, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, Martin Freeman, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Hope Davis, John Slattery, Alfre Woodard
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Patricia Whitcher, Nate Moore, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt
Composer: Henry Jackman
Special effects supervisor: Dan Sudick
Visual effects supervisor Jen Underdahl
Casting: Sarah Finn

Rated PG-13, 146 minutes

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